Thursday, August 27, 2015

She Stoops to Conquer

She Stoops to Conquer at the Avon Theatre, Stratford. Directed by Martha Henry. Lucy Peacock, Joseph Ziegler, Maeve Beatty et al.
     Charles Marlow arrives at Hardcastle Hall thinking it’s an inn, and behaves abominably to both his father’s friend, Mr Hardcastle, and to his daughter Kate, whom he takes for the barmaid, and whom both his father and Mr Hardcastle hope will prove a suitable match. Meanwhile, his friend George Hastings is courting Kate’s cousin by marriage, Constance Neville, niece of Mrs Hardcastle, who wants her son Tony Lumpkin (Kate’s stepbrother) to marry Constance. So you can see there is a lot of scope for misunderstanding and semi-successful attempts at deceptions and trickery.
     The question is whether this 18th century concoction will work in 2015. It was very popular in its time and ever since. The script has never been out of print, and it’s been “revived” every other year or so somewhere in the world.
     Goldsmith wrote the play to suit his audience. The style is wordy, everybody speaks polite English, most of the jokes depend on the class distinctions that mattered so much at the time. And that’s the problem.  While I could understand that Marlow was misbehaving towards his host by treating him as an inn-keeper, I didn’t feel it. It wasn’t funny. The problem is that our standards of courtesy have changed, so seeing a gentleman treat another gentleman as a servant doesn’t raise a laugh. It’s just not prank material these days.
      So how do you play it? Do you portray Marlow as a boor, or as a bewildered victim? And how do you play Hardcastle? His protestations at the boorish behaviour of his guest must somehow play off his polite behaviour, since he knows Marlow is a gentleman and treats him as such. No wonder Marlow has a hard time reconciling the courtesy of his host with the poor service of the supposed inn.
     In short, the play’s premise is a problem. Marlow should come across as worthy of Kate. His honest love for her as barmaid suggests that he’s capable of ignoring the strictures of class and rank, but if he’s played as a boor, how are we to take the reveal scene in which he discovers that the barmaid is really Kate Hardcastle, whom he has just politely but firmly rejected? Is he an honourable man? Or is he just focussed on his desires, and just damn lucky that they happen to coincide with his father’s wishes after all?
     “We have all been adamant that these characters shall be real” writes Martha Henry. They should not be stylised modern take-offs on the 18th century roles. So we got a naturalistic interpretation of the roles, which worked quite well, despite the Avon Theatre’s atrocious acoustics, which swallow up conversation-level sound. The audience laughed often, so many of the jokes still work.
     But Goldsmith’s wordy style is not conversational. It’s also much of a muchness: the characters all talk the same way. That means we need more physicality in the acting. Henry writes that she and the cast wanted the characters to “live and breathe”. I suspect that this means she wanted people as like us as possible. She forgot that life-like is not the same as like life. The trick is to make unreality seem real. Goldsmith’s world is not our world. His attacks on sentimentality may suit us; but the expressions of sentimentality were different. Sentimentality is always stylised, it eventually becomes stale cliche. How to refresh the cliche so that it can be satirised? Not easy.
     Henry’s experiment in naturalism is a play that pleased but did not engage me. **½

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